In Light, Chapter Nine

by artrald

Up

Eight

++++

I asked them for volunteers for a duty that warranted courage and got thirteen hands. Even my two sisters who couldn’t walk volunteered. Fucksake. Every novice knows that a task framed like that is menial and unpleasant. Every single one of them wanted to make it plain that they were going to do it so I wouldn’t have to take it on myself.

…Sorry, sisters, I can’t do this one for you. At least the fact that they volunteered made it easier for them. Now Keyt and Jeny are staying behind because it is their duty to guard our fallen and the relics they wear, not because of injuries they almost certainly got from lapses in armour handling. I give the rest of my people the option to put their hand down now they know what the duty is –

Now that’s another sister-superior’s trap. You put your hand down, you’re on the shit-list for sure. And my second sopranos, Niwall and Rakil, lower their hands, looking me straight in the eye.

Not them, then. Not Porsia, I need her experience. Not Manda, she’s a better shot than some of the instructors. Not Isaby, she’s shaky enough without giving her responsibility. Not – look, I can’t leave Keyt and Jeny without someone who can walk – I pull up my interface and have it draw lots.

“And Vanyssa makes three,” I say, and she stares flatly straight ahead and doesn’t let me see that that hurt her – but everyone saw me draw lots for that, what else could I have done – and that’s that. “The three of you have eight hundred souls and the relics of our honoured fallen in your hands.” Speech goes here. I don’t have one. “Farewell, sisters. We shall see you again.”

It’s not until they repeat my words back to me that I realise where I heard them before.

++++

This new turbo-shaft is a lot less forgiving than the old one. The grav fluxes up and down by a full two fifths as it accelerates and decelerates – we’re fine, but the refugees could easily have done without. It comes to a halt with an echoing crash, and then the utterly incongruous polite little chime of a turbolift designed for pampered aristoi. The doors begin to grind open – light and warmth, a good sign – wait, are there people?

Weapons come hastily up – “Hold,” I say warily over vox, and Magnus echoes me, just a little slower on the uptake. The last time I saw a miscellaneous dirty crowd of jumbled humanity they were trying to murder me, and let’s not rely on everyone else having more self-control. The doors judder to a halt, nine feet between them. We’ve still got part of a barricade over that.

The crowd on the far side, though, they’re different from the last ones I saw. The sound of the crowd is muted, the movement less purposeful. People are milling, sitting down, gathering in little clumps. To be honest, it looks a bit like our own civilians, if a little less well dressed. Refugees fleeing Throne knows what, packed into a space that’s then become safe for them just due to the sheer number of them
(like a vehicle bay, perchance?)
stop it –

And they see who we are and it goes through them like a wave. All voices are silenced. All faces turned towards us. People are making obeisance, making the aquila with their hands, fishing out the holy symbols they’re wearing, anything shiny they’ve got. Holding them up to catch the light, and as I watch the crowd begins to sparkle with little flashes of silver, chrome and polished steel. Whatever else we think we are or aren’t. The common people see the lift open and the Daughters of the Emperor are standing here for them.

And this, at least, is familiar. I turn my synth up to the point that everyone in the crowd will hear me, but I don’t shout at them. Tone of voice is important. And what I sound like more than anything else right now is the angel of death, passing by. “Citizens, attend,” I say, and I am already seeing them backing up, drawing aside. “Passage for the servants of the Throne.”

“Vigilance,” mutters Gennid over our vox channel. “Eyes out. Threat could come from any angle.” So, yeah. If ever you wanted proof positive that Gennid was an offworlder, that was it. The rest of us, once the initial surprise passed, a crowd is just the natural state of a public place. Whether eeling through it as a schola kid or taking pride in wearing the uniform and letting them make way before me, a crowd’s just natural – but I can see the hunted look in the man’s eyes, the set of his shoulders. He’s thinking it’s a perfect hiding place for an attacker: we’re looking at the reassuring mass of loyal humanity and frankly starting to feel safer. He was expecting them to make more room, perhaps: we’re seeing they’ve made a broad respectful gangway a good nine feet wide, you could get a tank down this. Maybe he was expecting not to draw quite every eye in the place? Not sure where else he’s expecting them to look.

They’re turning their little shiny things to face us as we walk. I’ve seen this before, at the funeral of Ecclesiarch Bellecci. The light of the hive is the light of the Emperor. It shines on the people of the hive, grace freely given: they pass it on and their prayers with it. I can see the interrogator squinting suspiciously.

A movement up ahead, a ripple in the sea of humanity. I’ve halted before even thinking, a quick move sharply backward and inward, knowing Niwall is doing just the same to my left. This is exactly like one of our drills, except you don’t touch your shoulders physically together if you’re armoured. Eyes scan the crowd in a flash – there – a middle-aged and robed man stepping forward with purpose there ahead of us, but the people don’t think he’s threatening – looks to me more like they’re encouraging him?

“What is it?” The interrogator only noticed something was wrong when our formation suddenly drew together like a fist, when Pink stepped casually across in front of him.

“Non-hostile, eleven o’clock, fifty feet,” I subvocalise, deep breath, come down off that hair-trigger. “Gennid, we have a petitioner.”

“You have got to be joking.”

I don’t even dignify that one. The man probably doesn’t even realise how close he came to dying in a hail of las-shot as he steps out and falls melodramatically to his knees, hands clasped in the aquila. His robes – if he had his hat on, he’d be a sacristan-major, a keeper of relics. “Holy sisters, hear you our petition!” He’s basically crying the words towards my knees. “Loyal adherents of the Throne are we, bringing this day the most humble of requests before the Chamber Militant!” And… that would be the correct form of words, hat or no hat.

“Don’t tell me you’re stopping for this timewaster,” Gennid growls softly, behind me.

Briefly I entertain thoughts of what would have happened if I’d let my suit off the leash when the paranoid little git went for his gun. “Get up,” I say to the priest, not unkindly. “We do not have time to waste. Walk with me, sacristan, and speak quickly.” Two quick long strides ahead of the group and he takes place beside me.

“Of course, Holy Sister. Of course.” He keeps his eyes averted. I’ve seen this protocol before. Being on the receiving end doesn’t even make top ten on the list of things to concern me right now. “The heretics, Blessed Sister, you know? You heard? You came?” His expression is pathetic. “The shrine, the reliquary shrine on the corner of Beneficent and Eleventh. I don’t know where they came from, they – we ran – please, Holy Sister?”

“Who are ‘they’?” Well, at least he isn’t calling me mamzel. “How many?”

“I, I don’t.” My unimpressed expression, the evident scratches and scars on my armour, the fact that now he looks at me I’m covered by a patchwork of little injuries and maybe my hair’s not rust-brown and matted by nature, he’s losing his thread. “Maybe twice as many as my workday congregation. A hundred or three.”

“Composition?” I see incomprehension in his eyes. “Did they have weapons, vehicles, uniforms? Do you have any idea who they were?”

He clears his throat. “Uniforms they might have had, I think, maybe, once. Blue tunic, most of them, black boots. Bits of armour strapped on. See-through, you-know, those see-through plastek shield thingies. Here and there the Scales of Law, but they weren’t keeping the law, Gentle Sister.” Memory hollow in his eyes. “Like animals they were. For all that they were crying the names of the Saint. They had a big lady with a voxcaster. They had flaming torches, just bits of insulation dipped in prom. As for weapons, we…” He was looking down already, but now I’ve got the feeling it’s from shame. “Didn’t exactly wait for them to show us.”

Arbitrators. What were once arbitrators. Roaming the streets in packs. Lovely. “How long ago was this?”

“Falling half of the fourth hour, Holy Sister.” Or about two hours after Sister Drabbe’s, after everything, you know. After the whole world went completely uh. “But we’ve heard them. We know they’re still there. Desecrating our shrine, Noble Sister, please.”

This is the gate out of here. The far side of this is the via-magna, eleventh spoke. Straight road to where we’re going. Or, in the other direction, that shrine. (But it’s a legitimate request, and in any sane world a sacristan of the Ecclesiarchy should expect all assistance from a novice of the Sisterhood, even if there’s no way he can give me a direct order). They are drawing back the bolts for us. The poor man’s practically on his knees. That shrine will have been his life’s work.

I look down at him. Even if he straightened up I’d have a couple of inches on him thanks to these boots. “Do you ask me to lie to you, sacristan?”

“No, of course not, Holy Sister, I – just -” He glances between me and my paltry unit. “They are surely no threat to you, and -”

And it’s dawning on me that it is me that everyone is watching, as the gates slide open and the rest of the squad deploys by sections into the wide smoke-smelling avenue, as Gennid gives me a significant glare as he stomps past. They want someone to – they want me to – say something. To make it right. We’re the Throne’s representatives? Um. Okay, then, what does the Throne want? Why is this happening? How can they fulfil the will of Him on Earth and somehow make all this suffering and horror mean something? Why in hell are those mute pleading eyes asking this of me? (Who else is there, I guess?)

Wait.

“Scale, Agate.”

“Here, sister.”

 “Opportunity here. That weaponry we brought you. I think I recall we had a crate or two of leftovers?”

“Go on.”

 “I have a reliable report here of renegade law enforcement. You have a mission: so do we. But right here we have a militia and a priest to lead them.” I’m not subvocalising. The sacristan can hear every word I say.

“Got you. Better this stuff goes to some use at all, is your thought? We can spare five minutes.”

 I look the cowering priest in the eye. “Make it so.”

He looks for all the world like I just physically loaded that crate onto his back. “Sister, do you take us for soldiers? Truly I say to you-”

I clear my throat and he bows his head into silence. “Thought for the day,” I say, searching for words as I turn up suit volume. And a reading springs to mind almost unbidden – it’s not about armour maintenance or one of the seemingly endless litanies of precedence and duty – go for it.

Cleave not to hope, ye who shall kneel before the Throne. All hope abandon: for hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.” Between the sleep-learned words and the synth turning my voice into an angel’s, it almost feels like someone else is saying this, like I’m listening, not speaking. “Hope is the cousin of apathy. Hope is the enemy of providence. Were you worthy, you would not hope, for you would believe. Were you able, you would not hope, for you would act. So said Saint Alicia Dominica, distilled for us here in the words of the Lex Sororitas.”

And my squad, bless them, come in exactly as the people do. “So say we all.” I lock my hands together in the aquila as each person in the crowd does the same: and then we are gone, and whatever they are moved to do next is my damn fault.

++++

We’re on the via-magna now, one of the twelve spokes that holds together the wheel-shaped hive-level. As such, on a clear day you’d see for miles – but this day is not clear. The smell of the smog is overpowering – the industrial fug of promethium mixing with the sharp stink of overloaded insulation, the dirty odor of heavier oils and things I can’t and don’t want to identify. Lighter notes that make me think of the shooting range. The fading tang of riot gas. There’s a heavy, sluggish wind blowing – there’s always a breeze in a sector with an aeroport. All we need to do is follow the wind. And not think too hard about why the ventilation of the hive is full of smoke.

“Interesting.” The interrogator’s had a vox-bead out of the supplies we took from the precinct, to replace that bloody handset of his. “A diversion, after all that talk of the value of life. You do know they’re all going to die doing that.

“You’re perfectly correct,” I say, and I’m surprised by the venom in my own voice. “Apparently Providence agrees, or didn’t you hear the reading I gave?”

“You chose it.”

“Did I, now.” The synth doesn’t like sarcasm. It’s not befitting. “It doesn’t mean I have to like it, interrogator. But remember that mob on level seven. Blind mindless aggression. The fewer of those between us and the aeroport the better.”

“I didn’t say it was a bad plan,” he mutters. “Can you make out the aeroport from here?”

“It might have passed you by, interrogator, but I’m operating on eyeballs and iron sights here. The only thing my eyesight has on yours is youth.”

He snorts. “You really don’t like me, do you, Ellayn?”

“Irrelevant.”

“First sensible thing you’ve said.”

Well, I suppose it wasn’t exactly a pleasure trip to start with: at least he shuts up. The smog’s too thick to use finger-sign accurately, so we’re using vox-clicks to coordinate, moving up through the eerie beige gloom, the occasional cough the loudest thing about us. Pink and Gennid sticking to the second altos so we all know where they are.

There’s singing on the wind, now, made muffled and distant and strange by the smog. I wince, and not just because I sent them to die for the Emperor. I know every word, of course. Not sleep-taught – my musical knowledge is honestly come by (honestly? I mean, probably taught by – look, I’m not thinking about it – honestly.) I’ve been singing since I can remember, a chorister from the moment they assayed a nine-year-old girl with perfect pitch and named her for a holy martyr from Mordia Quinte. And all that time I’ve been singing songs of the Saint. I mean, pretty much that entire book of hymns they’re murdering, you could practically give me a page number and I’d know.

And all that time it’s all been lies? (I notify the altos to move up: we’ve got an intersection to cover. We cross in professional harmony, moving as one: timing’s one thing we choristers can do perfectly.) Thousands of hours of practice, thousands of services and observances, and for what? I’ve been the voice of the Saint. The same voice that boiled unstoppably out of our favourite teacher and grabbed us all by the tongue and the heart, that same voice that pointed us at an Inquisitor of the Throne and told us that wrong was right: that voice. It’s been me. The same words scrawled in blood on the walls of that awful place, the same words that took Drabbe and turned her into… I knew them and nobody ever taught them to me. This cult that’s the reason this level’s full of the acrid smoke of people’s entire lives going up in bonfire: I bore their bloody standard, and I did it and tried to pretend I wasn’t proud because that would have been a sin.

The smoke is irritating my eyes. I blink and they sting and my throat hurts.

Fuck it. If I’m feeling like this, the others will be worse. I mean, Porsia was but a year from initiation, she’s done two vigils before, solos before the Ecclesiarch and everything. I bite my lip and the pain stings me into action. Cue vox, squad private channel. “Bloody hellfire, sisters, will someone not put that poor hymn out of its misery?”

And as I predicted, it’s like I took a pin to it. I hear a hiss over the vox which was Porsia’s attempt at a bitter little laugh. I’m close enough to Rakil to see her show her teeth. “Anyone got a pitch-pipe?” says Rowyn, and her synth decides to give her words perfect delivery.

“Take aim,” says Manda. “Ugly fucker with the voxcaster, six o’clock, three arpeggios rapid.”

“Incoming,” says Yasi, drily. “Minor seventh, six o’clock. Duck and cover.” She’s right, too. That hymn couldn’t be any flatter if they jumped up and down on it –

Porsia gives two rapid vox-clicks on the channel we share with Gennid and Pink: enemy sighted. Game faces on. Training says, if visibility is poor for you, don’t be the idiot who blithely assumed it was poor for your enemy: cover first, and don’t waste time taking a peek back out, because if I could have seen the enemy I’d have been the one giving the warning, now, wouldn’t I.

“Incoming, assault light disordered, eleven o’clock, two hundred, unaware.” Assault infantry, light, disordered: battle-language is designed for battlefields, not police actions, and doesn’t really have a word for a mob without weaponry or direction. You’d use the same words for a pack of dogs. Eleven o’clock: they’re on the left side of the via, and there’s plenty of cover for us on the right.

“Cross right, keep low.” Our footsteps won’t be audible for two hundred yards. We find cover on the right-hand side of the street, stay down. The luminators are up, washing the whole place in a hideous dingy grey, but smog just takes strong light as an excuse to get serious. I can hardly make the heretics out clearly, and they’re not even looking for us.

What does a heretic look like? Well, in this case, remarkably well dressed. This is hive-level twelve, still thoroughly a part of uphive: most people who live here would draw a finer distinction, calling the top ten levels the Spire and putting themselves at the top of the hierarchy of the rest of the hive, the richest honest folk in Baelis Tertius. They grow tall and stout on imported foodstuffs and wear clothes that their grandparents would denounce as resembling underwear. Until lunchtime today, none of that mob ever worked with their hands, ever missed a meal. Their exercise is taken in gymnasia: these people are too rich to be unfit. They run past as if out for their morning constitutional. And in their soft hands are tools they likely don’t even know the function of, beyond the heft or the blade that furnished those bloodstains.

Well, the diversion worked. I bite my tongue rather than tell my sisters not to engage. They won’t. I know that the only one I’d be talking to is me. I close my fists and stare till they are gone, and make myself breathe steady so my suit won’t get the wrong idea and flood me with adrenaline.

Dammit.

We creep on through the stinking greyness. Distance loses meaning when visibility is maybe a hundred yards. Surely we’re past the aeroport by now. I’ve never been to this one. I don’t know what we’re looking for –

Okay. Maybe I do. 

Maybe it’s the place the heretics had decided to set up camp.

The entrance to the aeroport was designed to reflect the wealth and prestige of its owners: the wall on that side of the road is worked for twenty yards either side into a relief of a great golden wing, the decoration worked out into a huge beaked head either side of the entrance, taste discarded for ostentation. And someone’s shinned up that thing with a bucket of paint, and they’ve painted a jaunty purple blindfold over the eyes of the giant aquila – and I’m not certain that they knew or cared that this makes it into the insignia of the Astropaths. They’ve decorated the beak with wild scrawlings and daubings, whatever they could think of (fucking hell I know those words) and thrown the rest of the bucket over the dedication plaque and called the job a good one: and they’ve done so recently enough that the paint’s still dripping.

Fires, they’ve laid fires in the entrance. Don’t know, don’t want to know, what they’re burning. And they’re singing, but these are secular songs, low-caste shanties sung in a braying uphive accent. The wind steals their voices. I can see bottles being passed around. They’ve dragged a statue of the Saint down from somewhere or other and set her up in the middle of the entranceway: someone’s pried the quill from her right hand and the scroll from her left, and wedged and duct-taped a shock-pike in their place.

“I make my tally seventy,” I subvocalise. “Concur?”

“Eighty-five,” says Porsia promptly. “Light tactical, disordered. Pink, I see riot-guns, stumm projectors, sonics: nothing serious. That armour doesn’t move like armour. Am I missing something?”

 “No, mamzel, those are fancy dress costumes made out of polycarb and paint.” I can see the slender cyborg lean out around her cover. “I would not put stumm grenades past them, or perhaps riot-gas.”

“Our odds of sneaking past?” Gennid’s voice is level and matter-of-fact.

“Not great,” I offer. “All it needs is one eye out of place, and I don’t know about you, but I do not feel that lucky. Pink, how long to start up an aerospace vehicle?”

“It depends upon what is available. I would guess at a few hundred seconds, but I could be out by a factor of ten.”

“Lovely.” I narrow my stinging eyes. “Do you know your way around this place?”

“Affirmative. We had to secure the whole area once for a party.“

“Good. Second altos, protect and deliver: firsts, speartip. Pink, give them directions, you have Gennid’s back. Sops, we get their attention. I see some blasphemy that needs answering, it’ll make us feel better if we do something about it, and I don’t believe they’ll ignore that. Hard and fast, make a lot of noise, onward as they reel. In whose name we serve:”

“The Emperor protects.” Even Gennid joins me in that one.

++++

Half drunk, full of afterimages from staring into the flames, their flashy weapons discarded or slung, the issue isn’t whether they’d hurt us: it’s how many of them will get away. We hit them with no more warning than a battle-cry, our voxcasters turned up to battlefield levels. The key is speed, the key is aggression. The dented lasrifle still won’t give me anything other than automatic fire – that, or it’s realised that’s all I need right now. Even las-shots are enough for heretics, and their first instinct to group together and back away makes them practically line up for us as the altos push on at right-angles making for the flight deck. Another burst and it’s like they’re giving way for us, falling to a knee not with their injuries but out of deference to the Daughters of the Emperor. Into them and I lift a man physically off his feet with the butt of the rifle. This fire’s in half a fuel drum, and I kick it full force and it bowls two heretics over and they scream. By fire be purified.

Keep moving. Rakil’s riot-gun thunders. Three of them coming for me (or at least past me) from my left and suddenly Niwall is there, her shock-maul discharging with a bone-shattering overhand blow as she shoots a second one in the throat, the third one backing away as she takes careful aim and puts a laspistol shot between their eyes. The statue of the Saint they’re venerating, it’s a decent enough little objective: in a lull I sling my rifle, take hold of the thing by the hips, not even thinking about its weight I tear it from its pedestal and –

for an instant, for one single heartbeat flash I’m holding a woman, an unarmoured woman, I can feel bones creak and shatter under my hands and she screams and struggles, I’ve already cued the suit to smash her (it) on the ground, I can’t stop myself without wrenching joints and pulling muscles and landing on my face –

The statue, I have no idea what in Terra’s name it was made of, but it shatters like porcelain. Both my sisters threw their arm in front of their face as per training, I’m closer and had no such protection, guess I’m lucky I didn’t lose an eye. Don’t just stand there staring stupidly, don’t wipe blood off my face when I’m wearing powered gauntlets – plan – follow it.

“First sop, overwatch. Move.”

Vox-click. The heretics went straight from shock to fear: they don’t care where they’re going, they’re just going, and Porsia and her section have them in a practical shooting gallery. We turn, head for the doors that the altos tore open. Fire and movement. Trust that our sisters have cleared ahead of us. “Second sop, overwatch.” (What the sacred fuck was that statue?) “Move.”

The flight deck is broad and flat and ends in infinity. Bright luminators have turned the place into a soup of greyness shot through with orange flicker: things are on fire. A lot of things. I can see ten fliers from here – aristo transports, cargo carriers, tiny little blunt-winged couriers, even a dirigible – each in its own state of ruin. Did we come here for nothing?

But no, there they are. The suit has a sense for its fellows and they’re over to my left – can’t even see them in the fog. No bodies, no gunfire. Keep the channel clear as we move up, staying low, the open space making us all instinctively wary.

It’s a crashed Valk, that’s the first thought. The Order’s transports are Valkyrie-class assault fliers, boxy gull-winged things, big heavy engines, fly like a dart the Emperor threw at the sky. At first glance this looks exactly like one – the right wing bent out of shape, the cowling torn off the turbine, the whole thing slewed over at a crazy angle, but these things can fly on one engine –

A second glance, though, and things are off. Those aren’t hardpoints there on the wings – they look like them, but they’re not articulated, the only bit that looks like it’s working is the light on the end. The engines – if I didn’t know better I’d wonder if those two massive turbines are fake entirely. And why would a Valk be parked (crashed?) on hive-level twelve? There’s no army facility on this level at all –

“Surprised?” Yasi, second alto, waves us over. “So were the people who tried to break this. Smashed the fake engines, pulled it over on its side and job’s a good ‘un, but underneath all this fiberplas it’s a limo-conveyor. Sieur Whoever-it-is likes to make out that the defence forces are their personal taxi service.”

“Well, let the record state that the vanity of House Whoever-it-is may just have saved a billion lives.” Vox. “Pink, how long?”

“Three hundred seconds, this conversation, and anything further the Interrogator believes is crucial to say to me.” Golden Throne, that man should write textbooks on how to make friends and influence people. I send her a vox-click and shut my jaw. Five minutes.

++++

I stare over my sights. Most of us who kept our lasrifles have switched the las-sight off. Not just for stealth – Manda was dead certain the things were crooked. Perhaps I should have swapped mine for an undamaged one. Seems churlish when it saved my life.

“A billion lives?” It’s Rakil. Second soprano. She’s had my back the whole time. I fished her out of a pile of corpses. “Like, actually a billion, an exponent of nine decades? Not the population of uphive, more like half of Tertius Hive itself? That’s our mission?”

“Does it matter?” Eyes front. “Would we suddenly say, if it were four hundred million – ‘oh, I’m sorry, Interrogator, but four hundred million souls only merit the soprano section’? Would we fight twice as hard, perhaps, if he made it clear it was all two thousand, two hundred and eight million?” (That figure. Given today, that last digit is too precise. Does that change a thing?)

“I suppose.” There’s silence a moment. “I suppose it does. I -” She swallows. “I suspect that for a million souls, you-know, like a whole midhive level was at stake, I would feel different. Still a lot of people. Still worth putting my life at hazard for. But – I don’t know. It would be more important that we did it right than that we won, because life would go on, right? For most people. Most people in the hive wouldn’t even know someone who knew someone who was hurt. But they’d see us, they’d hear of our deeds vox and pict, it’d be a hymn to the Emperor either way.” She shivers. “We could do more harm by winning badly than losing well. But if it’s the entire hive?”

I shake my head. “Are there not five more hives on Baelis? Are there not three more hiveworlds in the subsector? Is this not the Imperium of a Million Worlds, in which not a millionth part of humanity would even know someone who knew someone who had been hurt?”

“Right. But who will see? Who will hear? They will read histories of us, win or lose, and I don’t know about you, but I can’t make myself believe that the remembrancers and hagiographers give a shit what the facts were. I mean, back there, right? We sent a thousand untrained refugees off with a couple of dozen guns to be eaten by heretics. You reckon that goes in the histories?”

“You think I did wrong? You think we should’ve taken that fight on ourselves?”

“No. Of course not. Because we couldn’t, because if we saved one shrine and failed main objective because of that, then nothing would matter. Is that right?”

“You’re asking if ends justify. You’re asking me if a desperate situation is worth more than principles.” I give her a sidelong glance. “You going Radical on me here, sister?”

She actually laughs. “Are we literally having that conversation now, Ellayn?”

“What conversation? The one entitled what-the-fuck?”

“That’d be the one. Voxes off, yeah?” I nod and finger-sign ‘affirmative’; she stares out at nothing for a moment. “The cathedral. The inquisitor. That… whole…” She makes a noise of disgust in the back of her throat and her synth ignores it entirely. “Fucksake, Ellayn. By their deeds are they known. You have eyes. I have eyes. Why the flying… blue…” She gestures incoherently, out of words. “Why are we still acting like we’re allowed to wear this uniform?”

“Weather’s cold out here.” I give what isn’t a smile. “With a thirty per cent chance of bullets. And you want to get your kit off?”

“Not funny. You know exactly what I mean.”

“And if I had an answer -” I mark out an imaginary, empty space in the air with a flick of my fingers – “here would it reside.” Stare downrange.  Nothing downrange. “Look, sister, I’ve seen what you have, and nothing you ha-” (lies) “uh, nothing pertinent you haven’t. I have no special miraculous insight you’re missing.”

“You spoke to the interrogator,” she says, darkly. “Convinced him. Lied. To the Inquisition.”

“No lie did I speak-”

“Oh, and I’m sure you just batted your eyelashes and that little matter of hymns to the literal Archenemy just evaporated like mist, did it?”

“He wasn’t interested,” I say, and as the words come out I acknowledge how weak they are. “Said we had bigger fish to catch. Fry. Whatever it is you do to fish. Like, if I wasn’t about to literally try to tear his head off that moment, our case could wait.”

“And you asked if I was a Radical.” She hunches her shoulders, like she’s trying to withdraw her head inside her armour. “Throne on Earth. An interrogator spooked enough to work with literal factual heretics-”

“Would you stop?” I scowl at her. “Did you wake up this morning and decide to be a heretic?”

“Might as well have.” She doesn’t look at me. “Our house of cards is missing one, sis. Bottom layer, right in the middle. The one that says that anything, literally anything they ever told us was what they said it was. The Saint? The Order? Our holiest rite? Oh, wait, our mistake. The titles of the Emperor we’d chant every day? Turns out if you say them in the right order then literally everything falls apart. The sleep-learning?” The stock of her weapon creaks as she tightens her grip beyond anything it was built to take. “Ellayn, what we were taught is who we are. How much of that can be trusted? Anything? Are we just a collection of – of landmines?”

“Look, this sounds pathetic. But -”

“Say it.”

“That bit, maybe I can help with.” I clear my throat. “The interrogator. You said we talked. You were right. The way I convinced him we weren’t going to go for him the instant his back turned. Sleep-learning. He said – he’s acting as if he believes it – that you can’t edit a sleep-tape. That you can’t make a new one. He got me to quote the opening passage of the Rule and some basic theology from memory and seemed to recognise it. I think, I think if he’s good then the tapes are good. The Rule, the textbooks. The basics. The – you know, the stuff that I know at least as well as you do. At least it’s a place to start?”

A scowl. “Damn straight it’s pathetic.”

“Best I can do. It’s not like I miraculously became some kind of competent authority when you lot decided I was in charge.”

“Right, and that’s another thing.” She shivers. It’s not cold. “I mean, everything is upside down. Why are we paying any attention to the authorities and precedences? I mean, apart from naming the first-year as sister-superior because she’s the only one too boneheaded to back down?”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Any time. But… Why are we paying attention to the Inquisition? Why are we getting on this flyer? Today I’ve killed -” she pointedly checks her ammunition counter – “Fuck me. Lots. Lots of people. Bolter, sarissa, fists and feet, this toy gun, that shock-maul I nicked. Hardened killer, me. Yesterday I’d never seen someone die. Basically I’ve done all that because you told me to. And I don’t doubt you, don’t get me wrong, your will is the best excuse I’ve got. But anyone who’s heard you talk thinks we’re doing it because we’re the shining sword in the Emperor’s right hand.” She shakes her head as if this train of thought could be shaken loose. “And if we were that, sis, you do know that I ought to start by putting this gun in my mouth.”

I raise an eyebrow at her. “That’d be a bloody feat. You reckon you can operate it with your toes?”

That actually gets a laugh. “You know what I mean. But we’re not, though, are we? We’re a… a disgrace to the name ‘human’. A juvie gang all done up in kit we’ve got no right to, stolen authority, flat-out murdering people then telling ourselves and everyone else they’re heretics to make ourselves feel better. Ellayn, what I’m trying to say is that by any sensible yardstick we are the heretics here.”

“I know.”

That makes her look right at me. Actually gets a moment or two of silence.

I know, all right?” I don’t meet her eyes, don’t know that I could. “Like you said. I’m not a complete idiot. I’ve got all the same indoctrination you have. Same evidence. Same conclusions. But – but I feel, like, absolutely bone-deep, that my first duty is to you. To Agate. That it absolutely cannot be wrong to protect my sisters.” (Bloody good job I’ve done of it, say half a dozen dead faces.)

She nods, slowly. “Even if every word those precious sleep-tapes tell us about the Emperor says that we were damned the moment we opened our mouths and sang that daemon into the world.”

“For fuck’s sake, Rakil-”

“Or do you not remember that part? Did you take some kind of almighty blow to the head? You’re supposed to be smart. What would you call Drabbe?”

“Meat paste?” I look away. “To be quite honest with you, sis, I have been busily trying to scrub that whole picture out of my head. You know?”

“Worked, has it?”

Blessed is the mind too small for doubt,” I quote, mechanically.

“D’you feel blessed, Ellayn?”

“… Didn’t say that.” Still no heretics downrange. “To answer your question, sister? Yes. Really a billion. Really the whole hive in danger. There’s a – the Inquisition has a warship geostationary over Baelis Tertius right now, the Stiletto.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“I’m not!” My synth kicks in like a thunderclap: I flush slightly and moderate my tone. “Do I know what the Emperor wants to happen? No. Do I know what he probably fucking doesn’t?”

“It’s not about us, you mean.” She makes a face. “As you say, bigger fish to hunt. Shelve it.”

“Yeah.” I look down. “Look, sis, I know it’s not perfect. I’m not exactly a confessor. But right now that’s what’s got me putting one foot in front of the other.”

A long, slow breath. Long enough for her suit to give her a questioning little click as to whether everything’s okay. “…right. Well,” she says, and I can hear her forcing life into her voice, “I guess I can’t exactly expect more out of you than you’re running on. I suppose that taking orders means we don’t need to do the painful sort of thinking for a while at least.”

For the voice of the Inquisition shall be-

“The irritatingly nasal maundering of a scrawny voidborn geek with an ego three feet taller than he is. And I feel about as blessed by it as you do.”

“Started listening to it yet, have you?”

Te crisere, lupella.” But there’s humour in her voice, hidden somewhere under that foul language.

“Come over here and say that.” I match her tone and we stare out at the smog. “Good talk, Rakil. Should do this more.”

“… Yeah.” She finger-signs that she’s turned her vox back on. “Yeah, you’re … not wrong.”

++++

Ten